“So, what did you do this weekend?” Frank asked, unwrapping a blueberry muffin.
“I destroyed the universe,” Johnathan said. He pulled off his leather jacket and tossed it over the back of the chair.
Frank checked the coffee shop window – the parking lot, trees, and sky were all there as usual. “Well, I’m sorry to say, but you seem to have done a mighty poor job of it. If I was a super villain and hired someone to destroy the universe, and this was the quality of work they did, I would demand my money back.”
Johnathan sighed. “I should probably start at the beginning.” He tore open half a dozen sugar packets and dumped them all into his espresso, his third that morning.
“Sure, let’s hear it.”
“You know how I do network security… Well, I’ve been working for a big internet service provider, hunting down botnets.” Noticing Frank’s puzzled expression, he explained, “You can use viruses to take control of computers and turn them into a robot network, a zombie army working together to send spam emails, hack other systems, things like that.
“On Friday, I noticed some strange activity on the network that looked like a botnet, but I couldn’t pin down where it was coming from. It seemed to be everywhere I looked. It seemed like every IP address of every customer was part of a botnet.”
“The problem must have been with your security software stuff, right?” Frank asked. “I mean, it’s not as if everyone in the world got hacked all at once. …Did they?” He brushed the crumbs off his golf sweater and gestured for a waitress to bring another muffin. They were covered in frosting, but they couldn’t be that bad for you. After all, they had fruit in them.
“That’s what I thought at first, but with a little more poking around, I discovered something… It wasn’t the end users who had gotten hacked, it was us. Someone had turned an entire internet provider into a botnet. They controlled us, and as a result, they could control all the net traffic in the entire city. They could see everything – every email sent, every Google search, every video watched…”
Frank gulped. “Did they… do anything with this information?”
“Don’t worry, your search history hasn’t appeared on a billboard quite yet. …So, I started running a network trace. In a few moments, I had an IP address. All the data was being watched by a single computer. It wasn’t one of our customers, so I couldn’t just pull up his name and home address, but I could use geolocation to get the general area. …Usually, a red dot would pop up on the map. But this time, everything in the city turned red. The whole map was the dot.”
“So it was your map thingy that was broken, then.” Frank said.
“I checked with other geolocation services, and called a couple friends to check theirs. Every service said the same thing: whoever was running this botnet was everywhere, all at once!” Johnathan gestured excitedly, nearly knocking over his mug.
“I thought this must have been an inside job,” he continued. “Thanks to me, our network security is too good for us to be hit by a web-based attack. The virus was probably uploaded by someone actually in the building. Anyone could have been in on it, so I just kept my mouth shut. I didn’t mention the omnipresent hacker to anyone. After work, I went home and spent all night trying to decide what to do.
“This guy was controlling an enormous botnet through an IP address that appeared to be everywhere at once. He was committing multiple felonies. He should have been hiding his tracks, but instead, he was leaving footprints like Godzilla. Either he was incompetent and just got lucky, or he was so good he could dare everyone to come and get him. Either way, I had to take him on. Saturday morning, I got out my Linux box, hid myself behind a stack of proxies, and started running a port scan. I opened a –”
“John, old buddy,” Frank interrupted, “this is an awful lot of computer talk for one conversation. Just say ‘I hacked the guy’.”
“Sorry, I forgot your biggest technological achievement was hitting a ball with a stick.” Johnathan rolled his eyes. “…So I hacked the guy. Most of the files on his computer were detailed 3D renderings of buildings around town – the library, the courthouse, the whole downtown skyline. I found some documents full of notes about the ‘earth simulators’ that climate scientists use to predict global weather patterns. Apparently he decided to build a city simulator to look at local trends like crime rates, traffic patterns, things like that.
“His simulator was running, so I took a look. The graphics were amazing, photo realistic, better than any software I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t just buildings, either. There were birds in the trees, cars on the road, and people in the houses. All the people were unique, doing different things and having their own conversations. I never saw a model reused or heard a phrase repeat.
“Of course, I had to see if there was a model of my place. I searched for my address, and sure enough, there it was. I zoomed in, and clicked to view the inside of the model. I saw my kitchen, my living room, and my bedroom… and me… sitting at my desk… looking at the computer simulation.”
“They had a camera in your apartment?” Frank glanced around at the other customers, but no one seemed to be watching them.
“I could switch the view,” Johnathan continued, “and see myself from every conceivable angle – from the ceiling, from the floor, from the monitor, from under the chair, from inside my mouth, everything. There were only two possibilities – either every single thing in my apartment was a camera, including my own teeth, or there were no cameras at all.”
“But that would mean…” Frank began, before he realized he had no idea how to finish the sentence.
“That would mean this – the whole city, maybe the whole world – is a simulation. And you and I, and everyone we’ve ever met. It’s the simulator that’s connected to everything, not a botnet. I tested the camera theory first. I went to the spy shop and got a bag full of hidden camera detectors, bug detectors, frequency scanners, even a fingerprint kit to search for evidence of someone else having been in my bedroom. Nothing.”
“You’re not very popular, eh?”
“Shut up. So I decided to test the simulation theory next. I would look at the simulator’s code and see if I could give myself – or the simulation of me – a different life. Going back to his notes, I searched for details about how the simulator was programmed. And that’s when I saw it. Apparently, I had done this before.
“There was a list of bugs the programmer had seen in the system. ‘Johnathan Crane randomly changed careers from network security analyst to movie star. Unable to determine cause of bug. Rolled simulation back 48 hours.’ And a couple days later, it happened again. ‘Johnathan Crane randomly changed careers from network security analyst to US President. Again, unable to determine cause of bug. Rolled simulation back 48 hours.’ And a couple days later, ‘Johnathan Crane randomly changed careers from network security analyst to billionaire playboy. No detectable cause of bug. Rolled simulation back 48 hours.’ And again…”
“Wait a minute,” Frank blurted. “So in a simulation of the entire city, covering millions of people, he knows you by name?”
“I wondered about that myself. So, on a hunch, I checked the mysterious programmer’s computer for personal photos. Except for the gray hair and glasses, the God of the Simulation looked just like me.”
Frank laughed. “Created in God’s own image, huh? Reality is a lie, but you’re the most important person in the universe. Some people have all the luck.”
“Yeah, I’m really important,” Johnathan said, “just like the meteor hit the dinosaurs. When I was looking for photos, I also found a folder of medical documents. It turns out God has a pacemaker. It was connected to his local network. It probably emails his doctor with blood pressure data, something like that. …So, I hacked the guy.”
Frank nearly chocked on a muffin. “What? What in the hell did you do?!”
Several customers’ heads turned their way. Johnathan waved and forced a smile. “We’re fine! Don’t worry! Go back to staring at your phones.” To Frank, he said quietly, “It seems I’ve killed our creator. Somewhere out there, in the real world, God is dead.”
“But why? Why would you do that?”
“I had to know! I had to know if this was the real world or not. And the only way to be sure is if I could change my life without God reverting everything back to normal. So after I overloaded his pacemaker, I went back to the simulator, opened my settings file, and changed it. …That’s why my hair is blond now.”
Frank snapped his fingers. “That’s it! I’ve been wondering what’s different about you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Looks nice, by the way.”
“Thanks. But it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, as soon as I killed God, I realized that I’d also destroyed the universe.”
Frank gestured at the window. “Again, mighty poor job…”
Johnathan cleared his throat in a “shut the hell up” sort of way. “Eventually, someone would find the body, the computer would get shut off, and we would all cease to exist. But I think I fixed it. I turned the simulator up to its highest speed. If it takes someone an hour to notice God is dead, from our perspective, the universe will have already gone on for another ten trillion years.”
“Oh. Well, that’s a relief. Hold on, I need a refill.” Frank stepped over to the counter, returning a moment later with a steaming mug. “So, now that God’s dead, can you make me an immortal billionaire with a harem full of super models?”
“I guess so, sure,” Johnathan shrugged. “Do you want me to?”
Frank considered it for a moment, but shook his head. “Nah. After a few thousand years, I’d get bored and end up just watching TV.” He blew the steam off his mug and took a long sip. “But how about you? Are you going to change your life? I mean, besides the hair?”
“I already have. This weekend, I was a rock star, an astronaut, Scarlett Johansson, the pope, everything I could think of. But I always just reversed the changes, because the one thing I really want to be is impossible. It’s all just a simulation. I can never be real.”
“It’s okay, Frank. It’s just an existential crisis. I hear they have pills for that now. …So, what did you do this weekend?”